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Back to the Mac

Apple's title for yesterday's conference in Cupertino is in itself provocative: That Apple would need to tell its audience that it was going "Back to the Mac" is enough to make you think.

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Yesterday's conference had two major unveilings: The announcement of Mac OS 10.7, called Lion, and the unveiling of an updated version of the MacBook Air laptop. More on the sleek MacBook Air in a moment — Mac OS is the story here that is most interesting from an organization standpoint.

On the surface, the feature enhancements in Lion seem far from revolutionary.

There is the addition of the Mac App Store, which is an application that allows users to purchase software online directly through Apple.

(In what will emerge as a general theme, a similar application store has existed on the iPhone fore years.)

An iPhone-like 'Launchpad', for rapidly opening applications from a centralized location, has been added to Lion.

Multi-touch gestures for user interface are now included in the operating system. (Multi-touch is a feature that allows users to manipulate a pointing device, such as a laptop track pad, to interact with their computer in more complex ways than a mouse would readily facilitate. Once again, multi-touch has been on available on iPhones for years.)

The extraordinary prevalence of the hyphenated phrase "iPhone-like" may be what is most striking in all of this. In and of themselves, the new Mac OS features seem minor enhancements that simplify and improve the user experience. (As I sit writing this — on the ugly and bloated Windows Vista — I would certainly not want to demean that accomplishment.)

But the broader takeaway here with Lion is this: The marriage of Apple's computer and phone operating systems. That may be a good corporate branding strategy for Apple — but is it good for its users?

This is hardly the first time that question has been raised. (The speculation on this point may have started in earnest in January 2007, when Apple dropped the word 'computer' from its official corporate name.)

While the Mac now accounts for only 33% of revenue, Apple sold three times as many Mac units this year as they did five years ago. While that means Mac computer sales are growing rapidly, it's nothing compared to the pace of growth on Apple's iOS devices — which include the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, as well as Apple TV.

The initial response to Lion on the blogs seems positive if, perhaps, a bit muted by the standard of idolatry usually in evidence orbiting all things new and shiny in Cupertino.

At day's end, like most things in the software development universe, the ultimate success or failure of the Lion OS strategy will remain highly execution dependent.

Finally, the new MacBook Air. Apple has built a very slick laptop that is less than a foot across, weighs less than two and a half pounds, and runs on Intels perfectly reasonable (even peppy ) Core 2 Duo processor.

Some of the initial response from the blogosphere on the new MacBook Air has been critical. A few commentators have accused Apple of launching little more than an overpriced netbook. I believe this misses the point.

Apple may well have found a valuable laptop niche with the new Air.

The device is thin and light and sleek with a real grownup keyboard. I — like most business users — have no need to edit high definition videos on the road; but I want a keyboard, and a reasonably powered CPU, so I can quickly surf the web, write documents, work in spreadsheets, and rapidly shuffle between whatever other applications I may need. And if I must pay a premium, in the form of the 'Apple Tax,' to run an elegant stable operating system, so be it.

Apple seems to have delivered on that promise — and done it for under a thousand bucks.

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